James Ransom for The Wall Street Journal, Food Styling by Karen Evans, Prop Styling by Stephanie Hanes
SO SLURPABLE | Clockwise from top left: Chicken and Cellophane Noodle Soup; Tofu, Seaweed, and Pork Soup; Gyoza Dumplings in Smoky Chicken Soup; Hot-and-Sour Soup
Whether light and clear or rich and thick, soup always satisfies. I grew up in San Clemente, Calif., eating simple Asian soups that my mother prepared five nights a week as part of our traditional Vietnamese family suppers. We ladled her soup of the day into our rice bowls and enjoyed it throughout the meal, often slurping it as if a beverage.
On the weekends, we assembled and breakfasted on hot noodle soups made with broth that my mother had simmered the day before. When we had special celebrations, be it Christmas, Easter or Tet (Vietnamese New Year), extravagant soups loaded with fresh crab and fancy mushrooms kicked off the festivities. For an immigrant family like ours, the soups helped to reinforce our identity. While my siblings and I were crazy for mac and cheese, our heritage was nearby, in one brothy form or another.
During my bratty teens, a time when I mostly craved burgers and pizza, I complained about all the soup in our diet. My mother shot back, “Soup is good food.” She borrowed the line from Campbell’s not because she was a canned chicken noodle devotee, but because the slogan echoed her gut belief: Soup comforted the soul as it nourished the body.
Her response launched my love of homemade soups. Nowadays, my own family enjoys dinner in a bowl at least three times a week.
Many Asian soups can be made with water but the truly magnificent ones depend on a good stock. I simmer a batch of multipurpose chicken stock whenever I have time and freeze it in quart-size containers; you can make two to three soups from one batch of stock. Featuring chicken parts, onion, ginger and salt, the golden liquid is what I deploy for a pan-Asian roster of soups. (In emergency situations, I doctor up canned broth.)
During these cooler months, Sichuanese hot-and-sour soup (suan la tang) makes repeat appearances in our home. Its tangy and extra warming broth is studded with slivers of pork, soft tofu, chewy lily buds and gossamer bits of egg.
Another favorite this time of the year is a Thai meatball soup (gaeng jued tao hu sarai) comprised of silken tofu, seaweed and little pork meatballs spiked with garlic and cilantro. It’s a mild soup that calms the palate in between bites of fiery dishes.
To recover from a night of overindulging, I look to big bowls of noodle soup. Light and clean-tasting chicken and cellophane noodle soup (mien ga) is a Vietnamese classic that can’t be beat for its sheer ease. To make it, you simply tweak the stock with fish sauce and yellow rock sugar, then add the noodles and shredded chicken. Those foundational elements soothe while the plucky garnishes of fresh Vietnamese coriander, black pepper and chilis revive the senses.
For a fun project that pays off handsomely, make some Asian dumplings and serve them in a bowl of hot broth. My take on Japanese sui gyoza includes a dashi-like smoky chicken brew. A bowl of plump dumplings in broth is cozy and appeals to children and adults. Like all soups, it’s a universal pleasure that tames hunger and warms the spirit.
F. Martin Ramin for The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne CardenasChicken Stock
This is my standard Asian chicken stock. Only 5 ingredients (including water!) go into this fragrant golden broth. In a pinch, try one of the shortcuts.
Makes: about 3 quarts (12 cups) Total Time: 3½ hours (plus 8 hours to cool)
4½ to 5 pounds chicken parts or bones with some meat on them
1 large yellow onion, quartered
Chubby 3-inch piece fresh ginger, unpeeled and smashed with the flat side of a chef’s knife
2½ teaspoons salt
What To Do
1. Rinse chicken under cool water. Remove and discard any loose fat. Using a heavy cleaver, whack bones to break them partway or all the way through, making the cuts at 1- to 2-inch intervals. This exposes the marrow, which enriches the stock.
2. Put bones in a stockpot, add 4 quarts water and place over high heat. Bring almost to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer. For the next few minutes, use a ladle or large spoon to skim off and discard any scum that rises to the top.
3. Add onion, ginger and salt. Adjust heat to maintain a simmer. You want small bubbles to constantly break lightly on the surface. Let stock cook, uncovered, for 2½ hours.
4. Remove pot from heat and let stand undisturbed for 30 minutes. Position a fine-mesh sieve over a large saucepan. Gently ladle stock through the sieve. Remove and discard bones as they get in your way. Tilt the stockpot to ladle out as much clear stock as possible, then discard the sediment-laden liquid and any remaining bits at the bottom of the pot.
5. Taste the stock. If it is not as flavorful as you would like, simmer it to reduce the liquid and concentrate the flavors. Once you are satisfied with the taste, let stock cool completely, cover, and refrigerate until fat solidifies on the surface, for at least 8 hours. Remove and discard fat. The stock is now ready to use. Refrigerate for up to 1 week, or freeze for up to 3 months.
Quick Stock Options
Homemade stock has inimitable depth and flavor, but when time is limited, you can fudge it with canned chicken broth. Choose one that is relatively clear and tastes like chicken and not much else. I keep full-sodium Swanson broth on hand for emergency soups.
Option 1: If you have 30 minutes to spare, imbue the canned broth with Asian flavor. In a saucepan, dilute canned broth with water in a ratio of 2 parts broth to 1 part water. Start with between 5 and 10% more liquid than what you will actually need, as there will be some evaporation.
For every 4 cups mixed liquid, you will need 2 quarter-sized slices ginger and 1 scallion, cut into 3-inch lengths. Lightly smash these ingredients with the broad side of a cleaver or chef’s knife. Bring broth and water to a simmer, add ginger and scallion, and simmer gently, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Discard scallion and ginger. The stock is now ready to use.
Option 2: For an instant stock, just combine canned broth with water in a ratio of 2 parts broth to 1 part water. The result won’t be as complex as Option 1, but it will work.
Ms. Nguyen is the author of “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen,” “Asian Dumplings” and “Asian Tofu,” all from Ten Speed Press, where the original versions of these recipes appear.
F. Martin Ramin for The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne CardenasHot-and-sour soup is zingy and great for dinner, and terrific for lunch.
A zingy soup that’s great for dinner and terrific for lunch with a sandwich, salad or dumplings. Dried lily bulbs, sold at Chinese markets (usually near the dried mushrooms), impart a mild tang and crunch. If they’re not available, substitute ½ cup of shredded bamboo shoots.
Serves: 6 Total Time: 30 minutes
¼ teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon plus 1½ tablespoons light (regular) soy sauce
1 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry Sherry
2 teaspoons plus ¼ cup cornstarch
5 to 6 ounces boneless pork shoulder or loin, cut into scant ¼-inch-thick matchsticks
1 tablespoon canola oil
Chubby 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled, halved lengthwise, and bruised
30 dried tiger lily bulbs, reconstituted and trimmed of knobby ends
4 large dried shiitake mushrooms, reconstituted, trimmed and sliced
6 cups chicken stock
About ¾ teaspoon white pepper, plus more
8 ounces medium-firm or firm tofu, cut into ¼-inch-thick matchsticks
1 large egg beaten with 1 teaspoon sesame oil
About 2 tablespoons Chinkiang vinegar or apple-cider vinegar
1 green onion, white and green parts, thinly sliced, for garnish
What To Do
1. In a bowl, combine salt, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon rice wine, 2 teaspoons cornstarch and 1 teaspoon water. Add pork, stirring to coat well. Set aside.
2. In a 3- or 4-quart pot, heat oil over high heat. Add ginger and cook, stirring frequently, until ginger is super fragrant, about a minute. Add lily bulbs and mushrooms, stir until you can smell their perfume, about 15 seconds, then add stock.
3. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, then add remaining 1½ tablespoons soy sauce and 1 tablespoon rice wine. Taste and season with salt and white pepper. Aim for a spicy kick and savory depth. Add pork and tofu, stirring to separate. Meanwhile, dissolve remaining ¼ cup cornstarch in 6 tablespoons water. Set aside.
4. When pork has just cooked through, give the cornstarch a final stir, then gradually add to the soup. You may not need the entire amount—aim to create a soup that’s silky thick, not gloppy. When satisfied, give the egg a final stir and pour it into the soup in a wide circle. Stir gently as the egg solidifies into suspended ribbons. Add the Chinkiang vinegar, gently stirring. Taste and adjust flavor with salt, white pepper and vinegar. Ladle into a serving bowl or individual soup bowls. Scatter green onion on top and serve.
F. Martin Ramin for The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne CardenasTofu, seaweed and pork soup complements a meal of spicy food.
Tofu, Seaweed and Pork Soup
Velvety and earthy, this Thai soup complements a meal of spicy food. When wakame seaweed is not available, substitute 2 lightly packed cups of coarsely chopped, mild-flavored leafy greens, such as spinach, chard or napa cabbage.
Serves: 4 to 6 Total Time: 20 minutes
12 ounces silken tofu
4 ounces coarsely ground or hand-chopped pork, fattier kind preferred
1 clove garlic, finely chopped and mashed into a paste
1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro stems or roots
3 pinches sugar
1 pinch ground white pepper
3 tablespoons light (regular) soy sauce
5 cups chicken stock
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more
3 brimming tablespoons dried wakame seaweed
1 green onion, white and green parts, cut into thin rings
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
What To Do
1. To unmold tofu, run a knife around the edge of the package and invert onto a plate. Pour off excess liquid or use paper towels to blot it away. It’s OK if the tofu breaks.
2. In a bowl, combine pork, garlic, cilantro stems, 2 pinches sugar, 1 pinch white pepper and 1 tablespoon soy sauce. Vigorously stir with chopsticks or a fork to create a dense mixture. Set aside.
3. Put chicken stock in a 3-quart saucepan. Add 1 pinch sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt and remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce. Bring to a boil. Use two teaspoons to scoop up pork and shape into 1-inch meatballs. Pass the raw pork back and forth between the spoons to smooth the surface before casting the meatball into the pot. You should have about 16 meatballs. When the soup returns to a boil, lower the heat to simmer for about 4 minutes to cook the pork. Skim and discard any scum that rises to the surface.
4. Meanwhile, cut tofu into 3/4-inch cubes or break it up into small pieces with your fingers. When the soup has finished simmering, add tofu. Return soup to a simmer before adding seaweed. Continue to simmer until seaweed has expanded and softened, 3-4 minutes.
5. Taste and make any final flavor adjustments with extra salt, sugar or pepper before serving. Garnish with green onion and cilantro leaves.
F. Martin Ramin for The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne CardenasSome ingredients for gyoza dumplings in smoky chicken soup
Gyoza Dumplings in Smoky Chicken Soup
A major project that’s well worth it. Double up on the dumplings and pan-fry the extras for a side of pot stickers. If you’re short on time and have a favorite frozen Asian dumpling, feel free to use it here.
Serves: 4 Total Time: 1½ hours
5 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon sake
2 pieces dried kelp (kombu), each about 3 to 4 inches long and 2 inches wide
1/2 cup (5 grams) lightly packed dried bonito flakes (katsuo-bushi)
1 cup lightly packed, finely chopped napa cabbage, cut from whole leaves
1/4 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon salt
1 clove garlic, minced and crushed into a paste
1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger, or 1½ teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon chopped Chinese chives or green onion (white and green parts)
3 ounces ground pork, fattier kind preferred, coarsely chopped
3 ounces medium shrimp, shelled, deveined and chopped (2½ ounces net weight)
Scant 1/8 teaspoon sugar
Generous 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2¼ teaspoons Japanese soy sauce or light (regular) soy sauce
1½ teaspoons sake
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
24 gyoza or pot sticker skins
2 cups lightly packed spinach leaves or other tender greens such as chrysanthemum or dandelion
1½ to 2 inches of carrot, cut into fine julienne strips
1 small green onion, white and green parts, cut into thin rings
What To Do
1. Put chicken stock and sake in a large pot. Add kombu and let soak for 15 minutes. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add bonito flakes by scattering them over the surface. Allow to sit for 3-4 minutes. To ensure that all the bits are removed, position a mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth or paper towel over another pot. Pour stock through, saving the kombu for another use, if you wish. If using right away, reheat the stock and cover it to keep it hot. Otherwise cool, refrigerate overnight and reheat before parboiling the dumplings (step 5).
2. To make the filling, toss cabbage with ¼ teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Set aside for about 15 minutes. Drain in a fine-mesh strainer, rinse with water and drain again. To remove more moisture, squeeze the cabbage in your hands over the sink. You should have about ¼ cup firmly packed cabbage. Transfer cabbage to a bowl and add garlic, ginger, Chinese chives, pork and shrimp. Stir and lightly mash the ingredients so that they start to come together.
3. In a small bowl, stir together remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt, sugar, pepper, soy sauce, sake and sesame oil. Pour these seasonings over the meat and cabbage mixture, then stir and fold ingredients into a cohesive, thick mixture. To develop the flavors, cover with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes. You should have about 1 cup of filling.
4. Fill each dumpling wrapper with about 2 teaspoons of filling. Brush the edge with water and seal well to form a half-moon. As you work, put the finished dumplings on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet that’s been lightly dusted with flour. When done, loosely cover with plastic wrap or a dry dishtowel to prevent drying.
5. Parboil dumplings in a large pot filled halfway with water. Gently drop each in, nudging it with a wooden spoon to prevent sticking. When they float to the top, after 3-5 minutes, use a slotted spoon or skimmer to scoop them up, pausing above the pot to allow excess water to drip back down before adding the dumplings to the hot stock. Raise the heat on the stock to gently simmer and finish cooking the dumplings.
6. Meanwhile, add spinach to the boiling water. When it wilts, drain, flush with cold water and drain again. Divide among individual bowls.
7. Add carrot to stock. When dumplings are done, they will look puffy and glossy. Scoop up dumplings and divide among soup bowls. Bring the stock to a boil, taste and adjust the flavor with salt, as needed. Then ladle the stock and carrot into the bowls. Top with green onion and serve immediately.
F. Martin Ramin for The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne CardenasIngredients for chicken and cellophane noodle soup
Chicken and Cellophane Noodle Soup
This easy and bright noodle soup nourishes and restores. Sold in boxes or plastic bags, yellow rock sugar (aka rock candy) lends a round mouthfeel to many Vietnamese noodle-soup broths. Look for it at Chinese and Vietnamese markets.
Serves: 6 Total Time: 45 minutes
3 quarts (12 cups) chicken stock
3/4 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons fish sauce
3/4-inch chunk yellow rock sugar (about 3/4 ounce)
Salt, to taste
4 dried wood ear mushrooms, reconstituted, trimmed, and cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips (about 1/3 cup)
1/2 pound cellophane noodles, soaked in hot water until pliable, drained and cut into 6-inch lengths
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh Vietnamese coriander (rau ram) leaves or cilantro leaves
Black pepper, to taste
2 or 3 Thai or serrano chilis, thinly sliced (optional)
What To Do
1. In a large pot, bring stock to a boil over high heat. Drop in chicken breasts. When water starts bubbling at the edges of the pot, remove pot from the heat and cover tightly. Let stand for 20 minutes. The chicken breast should be firm yet still yield a bit to the touch. Remove it and let cool, then shred with your fingers into small bite-sized pieces. Set aside.
2. Add fish sauce and rock sugar to soup, then bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Taste and add salt, if necessary. Add the chicken, mushrooms and noodles. As soon as soup returns to a boil, remove from heat. The noodles will have become clear and plump. Taste once more to check the seasoning and adjust with fish sauce or salt.
3.Transfer noodles and broth into soup bowls. Garnish with a sprinkle of Vietnamese coriander or cilantro and lots of pepper. Serve immediately. If using, pass chilis at the table.
—Ms. Nguyen is the author of “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen,” “Asian Dumplings” and “Asian Tofu,” all from Ten Speed Press, where the original versions of these recipes appear.